When the ACLU of Louisiana honored Norris Henderson in 2009 with our Ben Smith award, it was in recognition of his many years of service to improve the lives of others. His work both at Angola and afterwards speaks to his commitment to the advancement of civil liberties, which is the basis of our annual award. At Angola, Norris proved such an effective advocate that he won cases for others as inmate counsel, and he did that with no expectation of personal reward. Since rejoining the outside world, he has dedicated himself to improving both the criminal justice system and the lives of others who, like himself, need assistance in re-entering society.
There are many reasons that a person might be wrongfully incarcerated, among them prosecutorial misconduct that deprives a defendant of due process and a fair trial. In his tirade against Henderson, James Gill acknowledges that he was denied access to a police report — in other words, he didn’t have a fair trial. His fundamental right to fairness was denied, which means that everything that followed his unfair trial was tainted.
The ACLU of Louisiana has never said that Norris Henderson was “exonerated,” because we know his history. We know that Judge Calvin Johnson released him on probation to work for a defense attorney, who was so impressed with Norris’ intelligence, passion, and skills that she offered him a job in her office. That attorney is Laurie White, now a judge herself.
From our standpoint, what matters is whether someone has served the cause of justice on behalf of others. Norris Henderson has done that admirably, and we stand behind him and his work.
Marjorie R. Esman
executive director, ACLU and ACLU Foundation of Louisiana